Hungering and Thirsting
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What is it that you want? What do you want? What do we desire? What do we crave?
“Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” sings the singer. “Stay thirsty, my friends,” advises the pitchman. But for what do we hunger and thirst? What do these words mean to us who really have very little experience of doing without (many of us, not all of us, and certainly not all of us who might hear this online)? I’ve heard the phrase “food insecurity” being used to describe grocery store shelves being a little more empty than we’re used to due to supply chain issues (so we’re down to 3 choices of peanut butter rather than 12). For many of us, we have little experience of what it means to be hungry. Or thirsty for that matter - we who can get clean drinking water from the tap for granted (although again not all of us can say this, even in Canada, and we’ll come back to some of the material implications of this Beatitude later).
Perhaps we do well to consider a baby crying out for food. The screaming, the crying, the wailing. We’re born with an experience of what it means to hunger and thirst most definitely.
So for what do we hunger and thirst? This is the fourth of eight Beatitudes. At the end of the first stanza if we want to divide them that way, and I do. The Beatitude that ends the 2nd stanza also speaks of righteousness. Up to this point in the Beatitudes which Matthew lays out for us at the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, we’ve been fairly introspective. Blessed are those who know the poverty of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The entry point. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. At this point, we began to speak about ourselves in relation to others. Here we are given a picture of our relationship to God, our relationship to ourselves, our relationship to others, our relationship to all of creation. It’s described as righteousness, and we’ll come back to this.
But first I want to consider how Jesus’ words speak against a lot of the messages that are out there. What is it that we want? The opportunity to pursue happiness maybe? The pursuit of happiness is written in national constitutions (or perhaps it’s “peace, order and good government” as it says in our constitution, and what do those mean exactly?). What do we pursue in order to make us happy? Do we think that happiness will be ours once we attain something? An education? A job? A spouse? A family? There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things of course. Do we think that once we retire and can relax we will finally then know happiness? What is it that we crave? Recognition? Possessions? Having “enough”? What constitutes “enough” exactly and do we ever get there?
How are we doing with all this? Where are our desires – the things for which we are hungering and thirsting – leading us? Oscar Wilde told a story which illustrates well how we do with misdirected desire. In The Picture of Dorian Grey, the thing for which Dorian Grey hungers and thirsts is youth and beauty. After a portrait of him is painted, he sells his soul in order to keep on looking the way he does in the portrait and to pursue a life of seeking self-pleasure. What could be better than that? What this results in is feelings of superiority for Grey. It results in him feeling contempt for others. When he goes up to his attic to look at the picture, he finds himself looking monstrous. The portrait has become a reflection of who he has become.
For what do we hunger and thirst? Oscar Wilde also wrote, “In this world, there are only two tragedies: One is not getting what we want, and the other is getting it.”
Into the middle of this situation, we find Jesus sitting, and inviting us to sit at his feet and listen. Jesus. The one of whom the prophet Jeremiah said “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Now here he is – our Lord! Jesus is issuing an invitation into his kingdom in which those with hungry hearts find a home. The really wild thing here is that Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst “In a good place are or blissful are those who hunger and thirst for happiness” or even “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after blessedness.” We can divide the Beatitudes up into two stanzas – 1 through 4 and 5 through 8. The first stanza of the Beatitudes is ending. We’ve looked at Beatitudes that have had a lot to do with our inner disposition – poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness. In the next stanza, we’ll be looking more pointedly at how life in the kingdom of heaven characterizes our relationships with others – mercy, purity of heart, making peace, facing persecution. Both stanzas end with this word “righteousness,” which we must pause to consider before we go any further.
It’s a word, particularly outside of church circles which usually has “self” in front of it, and can so be viewed rather negatively. Jesus will go on to warn his hearers about self-righteousness later in his sermon, telling them to beware of practicing their piety before others in order to be seen by them. Righteousness is how the Greek word dikiaiosyne is translated here. There are two sides to righteousness. One is the is an element of moral uprightness, or of a relation in good standing with God. Righteousness goes beyond this though, as it is also translated justice in the NT (and we often hear those two words together in the OT). The English word righteousness comes from an Old English word meaning rightwis which combines the idea of moral uprightness or right standing (right) along with the idea that this right standing is borne out in our actions (wise).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
We’re talking now about something foundational about the good news of Jesus. In Jesus we are made right – justified. We find ourselves (not through any goodness of our own but by grace, by the gift of God) made right with God. In Jesus who stood in line with everyone else to be baptized by John, a baptism of repentance, not because Jesus needed to turn toward God, but that in Jesus’ humanity he identified with us, and so told his objecting cousin John “I must do this to fulfill all righteousness.” To come to Jesus and call Jesus “Lord” (“you’re it, you’re my foundation”) in spiritual poverty and mourning and humility is to be made right with God. We don’t need to bring anything else. We bring nothing to the table to which we are invited but our need for God. At the same time, we are made righteous (or justified) in order that we be people who make God’s righteousness and justice known.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to want to live in such a way that every action, perception, thought, word, intention that we have, be reflective of the kingdom of heaven. It is to pray “God be the beginning and ending of everything I do and say today.” It is to stand up and say “The status quo is not acceptable” – including this status quo because God is in no way finished with me yet. To hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God in my life because I need it in the same way I need food and water. To long for it the same way the deer longs for the flowing stream. To long for righteousness always. In Hosea 6:4 God says through the prophet “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” I want to want the righteousness of God all the time. Who wants that along with me?
Jesus is inviting us into Beatitudinal life here. It’s not the same old same old. So many of us are afflicted with “same old same old” these days. It’s the nature of the way the world is right now. Anything new going on?? Beatiditdunal life in the kingdom of heaven, with Jesus, sitting at Jesus’ feet. This Beatitude rejects the status quo, it rejects the same old same old. It’s been called the “Beatitude of fire, the overwhelming longing that life should be on earth as it is in heaven.” Speaking of the righteous in Matt 13, Jesus says “Then the righteous shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” I don’t think this promise is simply for then.
This story is from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of stories and sayings from early Christian hermits who lived in Egypt. “Abba Joseph came to Abba Lot and said to him, ‘Father, according to my strength I keep a moderate rule of prayer and fasting, quiet and meditation, and as far as I can control my imagination; what more must I do?’ And the old man rose held his hands toward the sky so that his fingers became like flames of fire, and he said: ‘If you will you shall become all flame.’”
Lord help us become all flame! To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to hunger and thirst for a life lived in communion with God, in unity with God (a closer walk with Thee as the song goes); a life of mercy, a life transformed by love; a life of ever more coming to know God; a life of being formed in the very image of Christ. To hunger and thirst for these things means to be filled now in a way with the goodness of God. It also means to be fully filled one day when we will know fully, even as we are fully known. How do we position ourselves to be such people? Let us rejoice and give thanks to God together for what God has done, for what God is doing, and what God will one day do. Let us be people who praise God and tell of his excellent greatness. Let us be people who reflect on the righteousness of God in silence and awe. Let us be people who earnestly, pleadingly, ask, “Lord, be the beginning and end of all I say and do this day.”
Righteousness is not simply a spiritual concept. We’ve said from week 1 that the Beatitudes do not make such distinctions. The kingdom of heaven is for all of life. There is a reason that righteousness and justice are so closely paired. A day is coming when the justice of God will be known fully when we fully know as we are known. In the meantime, we have a part to play in making God’s righteousness and justice known. Someone has said that the “righteous person is someone in whom others, especially those in need, experience the mercy of God.” (and mercy is what the next Beatitude is about and it’s amazing how they go together). Longing for God’s righteousness should flow naturally into right conduct on our part in response to unrighteous conditions under which our neighbours strain, under which creation strains.
Love of God and love of neighbour. Love of God and love of God’s creation. We’re brought back to the fundamentals here at the end of this “1st verse” of the Beatitudes. It’s a good place to be in the middle of a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty. Here’s something of which we can be certain. That endless quest which we find ourselves on finds its goal in the one with whom we sit in the grass. Let us rest in him and let us hear his words as a challenge to us at the same time. Evangelical theologian Ron Sider wrote a book some decades ago called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The words ring as true today as they ever did. In a world where inequity grows, where differences in rich and poor have been laid starkly bare over the course of the last two years. In the midst of questions, Sider reminds us of our challenge, as well as our assurance. All we need to do, Sider writes:
“…is truly obey the One we rightly worship. But to obey will mean to follow. And he lives among the poor and oppressed, seeking justice for those in agony. In our time, following in his steps will mean simple personal lifestyles. It will mean transformed churches with a corporate lifestyle consistent with worship of the God of the poor. It will mean a costly commitment to structural change in secular society…. Together we must strive to be a biblical people ready to follow wherever Scripture leads. We must pray for the courage to bear any cross, suffer any loss and joyfully embrace any sacrifice that biblical faith requires…”
“… the hungry will be filled. The thirst of the thirsty will be quenched. Those who hunger for justice will see justice done. We know that the Sovereign of the universe wills an end to hunger, injustice, and oppression. The resurrection of Jesus is our guarantee that, in spite of the massive evil that sometimes almost overwhelms us, the final victory will surely come. Secure on that solid rock, we will plunge into this unjust world, changing now all we can and knowing that the risen King will complete the victory at his glorious return.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. May God continue to make us such people. Amen.